There they all were, in the noonday sun, blinking hard behind their dark glasses – partly thanks to the night’s excesses, partly because even the sober ones could not believe what they were seeing: thousands and thousands of people on the streets of London, just to greet a cricket team.
For once, Michael Vaughan’s verbal tic was accurate. It was “fantastic”. There never was such a time for English cricket. And it will never be quite like this again. If England retain the Ashes 16 months from now (very probable, I reckon) or win the 2007 World Cup (far less probable), the element of shock will be gone. The challenge for English cricket is to ensure that is the only reason, and that the glory of this moment is not frittered away.
The last time England regained the Ashes after a similar period of failure was in 1953, coronation year. The crowd famously surged on to the field at The Oval to hail the team, and Len Hutton, the England captain, was granted a reception at the Albert Hall. That, however, was the Albert Hall, Pudsey – his home town.
The Queen could ride through the streets of London to the delight of the masses, but not a mere cricket team. Funny how things change.
Even in 1966, when England won the football World Cup at Wembley, there was nothing to match this. There was a post-match banquet – but the wives were confined to nibbles upstairs, the prime minister Harold Wilson hogged the limelight on the news and his deputy, George Brown, got drunk. Then the players drifted away. One went off to get equally Browned with a journalist mate; they reputedly woke next morning, in a garden in Neasden.
In 2003, the England rugby union players did have the bus-tour treatment after winning the World Cup, and everyone was talking about rugby being the new football. But two years on, that enthusiasm has dwindled away without anyone quite being able to put their finger on the reasons.
“I think the RFU [Rugby Football Union] did do a really good job and genuinely milked it as best they could,” says Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World. “The number of people playing in England was in massive decline, and they arrested that.”
And rugby had some advantages that cricket doesn’t have. The World Cup came at the right time, near the start of the season when kids had loads of time to grab an oval ball and start kicking it à la Jonny Wilkinson. The cricket season is just beginning its traditional slow autumnal dwindle.
The rugby authorities sent the trophy on a tour of clubs and schools, during which youngsters were encouraged to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for themselves. Even Vaughan isn’t allowed to touch the Ashes. And of course rugby was not on the brink of making cricket’s disastrous error of taking the game off mainstream television and into the oblivion of a satellite channel. It had been there, done that, and bitterly regretted it.
Against that, the England rugby team was already past its peak at its moment of triumph. And in the months after the World Cup, it faded away through retirements and injuries, especially to its poster boy Wilkinson. Rugby has also still failed to solve the club-country tug-of-war. Cricket now simply takes its stars away from the counties and has done with it. This is a system that has long-term drawbacks, but they don’t seem very evident at moments like this.
The great contrast is that Vaughan’s cricket team is a young one that has every chance of going on to genuine world dominance in the years ahead. They have proved their mastery of England’s three chief historic opponents: Australia, West Indies and South Africa, a treble last achieved in the late 1950s. This lot has more stars than rugby too, partly because cricket is a more individual game, partly because the Ashes format provided time for even the more diffident players to turn into small-scale celebrities.
The England and Wales Cricket Board could, in theory, now send the whole bunch of them round the country (though without the Ashes) to inspire kids. They have done a bit of that this week. But in practice, the board will be hard-pressed to find a gap in the players’ schedules.
The very relentlessness of modern cricket could bring about the downfall of Vaughan’s heroes more quickly than any of their opponents. Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen and Steve Harmison are required for the so-called “SuperSeries” between Australia, as supposed world champions, and the Rest of the World early next month.
Then England face the toughest of all winter schedules, in Pakistan and India, followed by a 2006 summer of Tests (against Sri Lanka and Pakistan) starting earlier than ever. And then the Ashes again. Then the World Cup. The boys should savour every minute of this glorious week. It may seem very distant when they are fielding in Multan and Faisalabad come November.